What is a Gemba Walk?
Gemba means Real Place. Conducting a Gemba walk is about going to the actual place in an organisation where we create value for customers and learning. Where does your organisation create value for your customers? Often, value is created at the front line: on a factory floor or a sales call with a customer. It could also be with internal customers who are the next person in the process. Improving conditions for frontline and internal customers will ultimately improve things for the customer.
The power of a Gemba walk is indisputable. Why? A leader can gain learning and insight at the critical place, the frontline of their organisation. The leader can use this learning to help the team progress, overcome challenges, and improve customer service.
Gemba bypasses the communication dissemination and variance from front-line team members through middle management to a senior leader. Seeing is believing. Nothing is more powerful than a leader going, seeing and learning with their own eyes.
Going to Gemba is a holistic approach to helping an organisation move towards excellence.
This article will discuss how to get the best out of your Gemba walk. Specifically, a Gemba walk is broken down into:
The focus of a walk will vary depending on your level within the organisation. All walks should refer to your culture and your organisation's approach to excellence. Front-line leaders and middle management will naturally be process-focused at the same time as being culturally focused.
Senior leaders conducting walks are focused largely on culture, the leadership shadow that is being cast into the area they are walking. Learning from the walk, considering where they can recognise great leadership, and supporting leadership growth and development.
What is the purpose of doing a walk? You have to decide why you are going for a walk. It would help if you wrote this down. You can't just think it because if you only think it, you'll change it as time goes by, and you'll never go back and hold yourself accountable for the original purpose.
Let's think about the purpose of a walk for a first-line supervisor with minor responsibilities.
Well, first, they're probably doing a couple of walks a day and certainly doing several walks during the week.
One walk may be to see what's happening with standard work practices. Are people following standard work? Do they have any ideas about changing the way leadership organises standard work? Is anybody struggling with doing the job the way that it should be?
A second walk may be to look at flow - where products or processes are slowing down and what is happening on the frontline.
It's important not to try and look for six different things on the Gemba walk. Write down a purpose and get a true feeling for what is related to your goal.
Perhaps the ultimate purpose of a Gemba walk should be to get in touch with reality as it exists. And what I want to be doing as a leader is letting go of my opinions. But more than that, I want to challenge my assumptions and beliefs because that's where knowledge evolves. When I go in there, I can see what I assumed to be true wasn't actually happening in practice.
This should give you time to pause and reflect. Ask yourself what is truly happening, and try to learn from that.
Listen for the rhythm, the pulse of the working environment. It doesn't matter if it's highly repetitive in a factory or if you are listening in an administrative domain. There is a pulse within the way that work gets done. Can you see the flow of the way that work is being done? Make notes.
There are two noticeable actions in a highly effective, improving company:
Noise is reduced.
Many problems are raised because standardised processes have allowed them to be seen.
Next, give people an opportunity to provide feedback. This goes for people on the frontline and those who accompany you on the walk. If you want to uplift your people, you've got to give them room to learn and figure things out for themselves. Don't try and speed up the conversation through interruption.
Ask good questions, and then give space for the worker to respond. Have the confidence in yourself to step back and allow somebody else to express themselves. If they are unable to answer your question, that's not because they're stupid. It's because you didn't ask a good question. And so, how can you do a better job of making it easy for people to speak?
You could also ask for feedback on your own behaviour. Ask a couple of the people on the walk with you to observe your practice. Say you want to get better at asking the right questions. Ask for their feedback during the debrief after the walk has finished. Asking good questions also leads to building patience.
There is a high degree of humility in top-performing organisations when leaders have started to learn things they didn't know were happening before. They thought those practices were true upon the creation of the job but are probably not true today.
Evaluating through experimentation
Leaders can fall into a trap when they devise a way they do the Gemba walks and try to do them the same way every time. Rather than realising this walk is an experiment, I want to learn from it. I want to improve at Gemba over time to better uplift the people around me, which should be the purpose of just about every Gemba walk.
Let's return to the front-line supervisor and consider how they could experiment with the Gemba process.
They're usually time-pressured and doing the walks by themselves. So what can they do if they want to improve what they're doing on the walk? They could invite another supervisor to walk with them to observe their walk. They could invite their manager to attend to see what they're doing and coach them on how they could improve. The supervisor could ask for this type of review in a spirit of experimentation to help them improve. Ideally, the supervisor asks for the review at least once, ideally twice a year.
Change things up because, as we all know, habits can become automatic and turn stale if we're not careful.
Another experimentation idea is to ask the following questions for feedback from your team:
What should I keep doing?
What should I stop doing?
What could I start doing?
Another form of debriefing could be to ask the following questions:
What did we learn?
What do we want to do on the next walk?
Do we want to make some changes to the process of what is going on?
Experimentation could also be about changing the focus of the walk. Think about the range of areas in your organisation. You could look at:
assessment of practices
In an effective organisation skilled at continuous improvement, the leader may ask, "What are you struggling with right now to get better at doing to move forward?"
With an organisation earlier in its journey, people may not know what to focus on. As a leader, you will want to know what your people focus on. And then, you will want to see what is happening in practice. And then match up what you see with what the team has said. And then try to nudge people forward.
Leading the change
Does the CEO need to drive the improvement effort?
Picture this shining light up there, right at the top of an organisation. And we all bask in the glow of this brilliant CEO doing such a great job. Can the team draw on that brilliance and help spread the word and learn from each other? You bet! Where can a CEO or another executive go to Gemba?
Of course, a CEO or any leader should go to Gemba in their direct control/authority area. Many organisations actively promote leaders walking in each other’s areas. This provides fresh eyes and the opportunity for peer-to-peer coaching. It is important not to bombard one workspace with leaders walking it. To overcome this, we recommend leaders develop a schedule that can be reviewed and adjusted, ensuring that no one area will become overwhelmed with too many visits.
Improving culture can and should happen on multiple levels.
As you build the workers' self-esteem and confidence, that doesn't mean they'll get everything right. There will be mistakes along the way. But what happens when those mistakes do take place? As you go to Gemba, what are you building into the team's accountabilities and process improvement?
Try to hold yourself to a pretty high standard. If you're doing a walk, be accountable for seeing something that's meaningful. Make observations and ask good questions. If you've done a walk and haven't seen anything substantive, then you haven't done a good walk because there's always something to see and learn from.
When leaders go to the actual place in an organisation where value is created for customers, they see first-hand what is happening in practice. There is no substitute for this first-hand knowledge. Leaders of all levels can see, learn, and then change what is happening to constantly improve for all employees. Culture, as well as following processes and standard work, can be encouraged. Workers see that leaders are interested in what they are doing and will respond. Leaders who go to Gemba influence change.
We believe that Going to Gemba is one of the best tools in the world for actively changing an organisation's culture.